At a recent conference in Winnipeg I had the pleasure of visiting The Forks, an area located at the junction of two large rivers....
Andrew Beverley, distinguished banking executive and startup investor, respected member of various advisory boards and commissions, pillar of Columbia’s business community for more than a decade, has always had his ambitions a little misunderstood.
“Well, one thing that not many people know about me is that I was an entrepreneur in high school,” he says. “I did everything from photography to lawn mowing to small home repairs.” He smiles. “This was back in the ’70s, and a lot of people were putting in ceiling fans, so I put in dozens of ceiling fans. If you can believe this, when I was a senior in high school, this lady hired me to completely gut and redo her kitchen, put new windows and doors in her home, and whatever. Can you imagine asking a high school senior to do that?”
Beverley is sitting at his desk in the Columbia Bancshares office, wearing jeans. We’re about a half-mile from the main Veterans United Home Loans complex. Employees shuffle between both locations.
Beverley has been working in the office for nine months, since he left his vice president post at Landmark Bank to be the chairman and CEO of the bank holding company that Brant and Brock Bukowsky, Veterans United’s co-founders and owners, started in order to buy the Clarence State Bank, near Macon. The company didn’t offer much context for the purchase — other than saying that the bank opened up new possibilities to complement the VA home loans that Veterans United sells — and has been mostly quiet about the purchase since. Beverley has been keeping his head down, working, going back to his roots.
Columbia Bancshares will be a primarily online bank focused on meeting the financial needs of veterans. It will partner with VU (as a separate company), providing wide ranging banking services and financial literacy resources. Beverley is fully inhabiting his role as an entrepreneur again. He’s ready to show the world his newest startup.
Beverley grew up near Little Rock — he maintains a subtle Arkansas accent, and an affable sense of politeness that must have served him well as a high school businessman. His father was a National Guard officer for 35 years, imbuing the young Beverley with a respect for the military that makes his current project feel particularly satisfying.
After getting his finance degree and MBA from Louisiana Tech, Beverley started his career at Republic National Bank of Dallas, the biggest bank in Texas at the time. He was the only employee in his entry class to have not come through the bank’s nationwide recruiting program, which pulled young bankers from high-pedigree colleges, like Harvard. All employees had to wear blue suits with white shirts everyday — their coats had to be on all the time, even when alone, behind closed doors. It was a far cry from installing ceiling fans, but Beverley still embraced it. He worked his way to a position lending mostly to other financial institutions. “I learned a lot about banking from studying other banks,” he says. “It was a great learning experience. Became a manager just four and half years after joining the company, so I was pretty lucky that way.”
One of the most interesting impressions I get of Beverley is that he doesn’t care about money in the sense that most people do — he likes finance as an intellectual concept, and he likes teaching people about money. (He stopped one of our interviews for a couple minutes to talk about how important it is for me, personally, given my specific financial situation, to invest in a 401(k).) As he moved his way through the ranks, first at Republic and later at Bank of America in Dallas, he was dealing with more and more money, but what he liked most was the responsibility — the knowledge that he was making a difference. “It was pretty cool, in my early 30s, to be managing millions of dollars,” he says of his time running the trust department for Bank of America. “And there were all kinds of specialists and 30 or so trust officers and all that, but the ultimate responsibility rested with me. Anyway, I liked it and thought it was pretty cool.”
The trust department eventually merged into what was called the private client group — “a one stop shop for rich people,” Beverley says. He was a manager in the new group, which included two of the ten wealthiest families in the country. “Lot of billionaires,” Beverley adds. “I’ll keep it positive, but I’ll say this: I realized that money causes more problems than it solves, and there’s not many of those people I would have changed places with. I might want to take their Gulfstream out for a weekend, but I wouldn’t want to change much more than that.”
Beverley left Bank of America after they offered him a position as a state-level executive based in Las Vegas. He didn’t want the job, and mentioned to some co-workers that he could never move his two elementary-aged children to Sin City. “They said, ‘you’ll only be there a couple of years, what does it matter?’” he remembers. The comment made him think about whether he was a long-term fit as a Bank of America executive. He decided he wasn’t. “So anyway, that’s when I learned that I wanted to take control of my career.”
Beverley sought out a community banking job in a mid-size town — a position where he could see the results of his work in the community he lived in — and the family settled on Columbia. He first worked as an executive with Central Bancompany, then moved to Landmark, where his old friend and former Republic Bank colleague Kevin Gibbens was CEO. “I thought, wow, this is perfect,” Beverley says. “I won’t have to commute, and I can do community banking for a strong community bank, and I just loved it. . . . if it weren’t for the Bukowskys, I would have worked there until retirement.”
Beverley met Brant and Brock Bukowsky through Centennial Investors, the angel investing group of which Beverley was founding president. It was late 2006 — VU had grown tremendously since opening in 2002, but it was still a fraction of the company it is today — and the Bukowskys were early investors with Centennial; in early 2007, they asked if Beverley would be a member of their advisory board of directors. (Brant and Brock declined to be interviewed for this story).
Beverley was drawn to the Bukowskys and their business — both because their entrepreneurial spirit spoke to his own history and because their mission resonated with his reverence for the military — and enthusiastically joined. His role on the board was managing the strategic planning meetings for the company: he set the agenda for meetings mapping out how VU could become the company it is today.
So Beverley was a familiar face among VU executives, including the ones now involved in the Columbia Bancshares project — Greg Steinhoff, Russ Starr, and Gary Lee, among others. Lee, who worked for CARFAX before becoming VU’s chief technology officer, is now vice president at Columbia Bancshares. He’s in charge of creating the tech platform that will be vital to the bank’s online success.
Lee says that VU had been talking about creating a bank on and off for years. It’s a fairly obvious match (veterans who are looking to buy a home could also probably use some financial guidance and help for other things too), and Beverley provides exactly the kind of experience the project needs: he knows how banks work and he knows how startups work. Between Beverley and the VU executives backing the project, the project probably has more professional firepower than any other startup in town.
“What got me passionate about the bank is kind of having this blank canvas to work with,” Lee says. “Clarence State Bank does not have a lot of technology right now — they’ve got the bare minimum to be a community bank, so now we have the opportunities to turn this into a platform to first help our employees and then help VU’s borrowers.”
Veterans, especially those who joined the military out of high school, often face more financial barriers than average citizens. Coming from an environment where nearly everything is structured, many veterans don’t have the financial literacy to suddenly navigate things like health care, housing, or retirement savings. They’re often underemployed or unable to find full-time work without any job experience besides service. Keith Glindemann, a veteran himself and Columbia College’s veterans service director, says maintaining finances without the military’s structure can be overwhelming: “They pay the bills, and they live today, and then they get out and they might have new expenses — rent, deposits — and it’s hard. If you’re underemployed, how do you leverage those funds to be able to get some place?” Predatory lending firms often target veterans; Glindemann says he’s seen financial advising firms hire ex-military people who can better coax fellow veterans into making risky financial decisions. Part of VU’s appeal is an earnest desire to counteract that — but there’s space to grow beyond home loans.
“I really believe that serving veterans is a calling,” Beverley says. “It’s not just a job, it’s a mission. So part of why I’m doing it is for that reason — I get really excited thinking about the education of veterans. And the chance to build it from scratch is really exciting too.”
Most of 2016 has been spent clearing all the regulatory hurdles that come along with opening a bank (hardly anybody has even tried since the recession), but one of Beverley’s major priorities for the first part of 2017 is nailing down the perfect online platform for the bank. The Bank of Clarence will continue to operate, and Columbia Bancshares will probably have a physical location in Columbia too (Beverley has been meeting with architects to talk ideas), but the online offering is what will set the bank apart. Beverley and Co. — the bank is now up to three employees — are still trying to pin down the exactly perfect tech platform for their product; until they can do that, the official timeline is still murky.
Columbia Bancshares is far from the only financial institution dedicated to veterans — Navy Federal Credit Union and USAA are a couple examples — nor will they be the only bank with easy-to-use mobile and online options (big national banks, like Bank of America, have far bigger teams working on theirs). Columbia Bancshares will have to do multiple things well to be successful, and maintaining that multi-tiered strategy is Beverley’s current challenge. The company has a Gantt chart with 87 goals on it, and some of them are huge: for example, one is “review proposals for core system,” which will involve dozens of evaluations, meetings, follow-up meetings, follow-up evaluations — Beverley doesn’t anticipate finishing it until at least March. His position requires constant lens switching between the minutia and the big-picture vision. Lee, who, like Beverley, is a startup mentor through MU’s Venture Mentoring Service, says, “The key with that, as with any startup, is the F-word we joke about: focus.”
“What we’re working on is what we would call our customer value proposition,” Beverley says. “We would have to give them a reason to choose us. And part of it might be that they’ve had a wonderful experience with Veterans United Home Loans . . . even though we’re a separate company, we’ve embraced Veterans United’s values about enhancing lives. Well, my part is going to be enhancing veterans’ financial lives.”
Much of Beverley’s career path — from his handyman high school career to his corporate ladder climbing to his downsizing and community-focused jobs in Columbia — points to his desire to leave a legacy: to do something impactful enough to last beyond his own career. I ask him if he thought Columbia Bancshares could satisfy that itch more than he’s been able to in the past.
“Yeah, oh, absolutely,” he says. “You know, as a community banker, I can drive around and show you places that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t taken a risk, and I like that. So that’s what I mean when I say I want to look back and say, ‘Here are things that we did.’ Or, you know, I’m proud of my involvement as a founder of Centennial Investors — I think that has the potential to kind of live on and grow. And I think — I think that this does too. The potential is there. At this point it’s still an idea. But I have every confidence it’ll be successful.”